July 29, 2013

In and Out of the Quad-Cities – Amtraking our Life Away

Contributed by Gail McPike and Toni Hall

Trains have rumbled down the long track of American poetry, folklore and music. Jimmy Rogers, Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson join Emily Dickinson and Henry David Thoreau in heralding the magic of the Iron Horse. And, while enjoying a mountain hike a few weeks ago, Gail’s niece Sarah shared a tale from her childhood. It seems that whenever bicycling up a steep hill with youngsters in tow, Gail would chant that line from – The Little Engine that Could. “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can…” The lonesome sound of a train whistle pulling through a dimly lit and foggy mountain valley inspired Hank Williams and, to tell you the truth, it brings out the wanderlust in us.

We are the “tweener” generation of trains. In our parent’s day, trains were the mode of transportation. Every major trip involved an “all aboard” call from a gentlemanly conductor. In the future, zillion dollar a gallon gas may put trains back into our daily lives. But, for the baby-boomer bunch, trains loom in the past as a romantically cool deal that we managed to miss. We felt left out…

Meet the California Zephyr

The Amtrak folks describe the California Zephyr as “the most beautiful train trip in North America.” It runs daily from (as Current Trophy Husband Frank likes to say) Chicago, USA to San Francisco California. It climbs “through the heart of the Rockies, and further west through the snow-capped Sierra Nevadas” and rumbles its way on into San Francisco.”

Earlier this year, we decided to attend the Black Sheep Gathering in Eugene, Oregon. Taking the train ride to Sacramento, California where we could rent a car and finish the trip behind the wheel was a key part of our plans. For now, we’ll leave the Black Sheep out in the pasture and give you the low down on the trip.

All aboard – yep, they still say that

First, we didn’t ride the Zephyr from start to finish. Instead, we caught the train about 45 miles away from the QCA in Galesburg, Illinois. The Galesburg station is quaint. It has the look and feel of a 1930s building, equipped with hardwood (no pun intended) benches in the waiting area. The Amtrak employees wear uniforms reminiscent of days gone by. Although, on second thought, how much can railroad uniforms change?

We arrived about 45 minutes early (Toni is an on-time sort of a girl) to find the station buzzing with activity. There were Boy Scout Troups heading for camp, tourists, people along for short rides and railroad aficionados dressed for, well, train travel.

The train rolled into the station about 8 minutes late and the travelers were asked to go to the car identified on their tickets. Each car had a porter to assist you in finding your spot, but mostly it was a 10 minute free for all, as folks got in and out of the train. CTH Phil and Frank lugged our big bags on board the train, and helped us carry all of our other stuff to our seats.

Our original plan called for these two hardy gals to ride in coach for the entire 40+ hours. We’ll give you the low down on that later, but our seats were comfortable and elevated high enough for a great view. After a short 10 minute stop for loading and unloading, guests were asked to get off the train and the Zephyr pulled slowly out of the station. There is nothing to describe the feeling of hundreds of tons of cold steel accelerating down the track.

We almost got derailed, back to the seats. They are comfortable for sitting, but not all that good for sleeping. After the first night, we started chatting with other travelers and discovered there were still a few “sleeper car” openings available. We had a nice chat with the conductor and arranged for us to make an upgrade to our own “roomette” in the Superliner Sleeper Car, much better for the 50s plus back.

Meanwhile down in the Dining Car

The train has a Dining Car, and almost unbelievably, the food is good. Furthermore, once we upgraded to the roomette, the meals became part of the package. The dining is “European” in that you are seated at a table with other travelers. In our opinion, this only enhanced the experience of the trip. We met some mighty cool people and had plenty of time to chat with them.

America flashing by your side window

The folks at Amtrak weren’t fibbing about the scenery. We saw mountain gorges, tunnels and scenes most people only view in the Airline magazine as they jet 35,000 feet above the tracks. Did you know the U.S. still has wild mustangs? These wild horses escaped from the Spaniards, were used by the Plains Tribes and still run wild in the Southwest.

Along the way, our train pulled to a stop along a side track to wait for a crash investigation. One of our fellow travelers told us trains collide with humans about every 200 minutes. Each such accident requires a major investigation. Could this be a good reason to talk to our kids and grandkids about rail road crossings?

The train pulls into the station

We decided to end this story with a riddle. Here goes: Railroad crossing without any cars, is it possible to spell
that without any “R’s”? The answer is yes… T-H-A-T. And that is all.